I imagine to some, Sustainability, taking responsiblity for the environment and our limited resources, can seem like a fad. If you think about it, sustainable practices, recycling, renewing certain sources of our energy was how we all once lived.
After the agricultural revolution in Europe during the eighteenth century, which improved production and may have improved the resp0nsible employment of the land, the industrial revolution began to implement profit gaining strategies at the cost of creation. Think not only of the exploitation of coal and fossil fuels but of unhealthy working conditions, uncontrolled hours of work, child labor and the physical punishment of workers who could not keep the pace. In the United States, think of the slave labor in silk factories and on the farms. Think of migrant camps today. We literally hurt ourselves when we exploit the environment. We forget the values of frugality and simplicity and the humane treatment of one another which make human life human and intentional; that re-connect us with our contingency and dependence on the Creator, that make us a human community, working together for a common good.
Monastic life had been, until the middle of the twentieth century, a life of recycling, creative solutions to practical problems out of limited means and respect for others. Of course, that could degenerate into economic obsessions: saving money, making profit. When the practice becomes loveless and unhinged from God and our fellow human beings, when poverty becomes an end in itself, something essential has died.
As our society changed, monks and nuns struggled to survive in a complex economy, unfriendly to the small farmer, the family business, simplicity. We did what we must to adjust and earn a living. And we lost sight of some basic values. But the decline of our natural resources, the pollution of our air and waterways, the disappearnace of wild life, the vast economic inequalities in our society began to wake us up: we needed to reconnect, recover, re-inhabit our monastic tradition.
Some people would pit human beings against nature. Monks and nuns, as any Christian, can’t do that because we cannnot make an absolute of nature. Only God is absolute. Human beings and the natural world are both creation; both have the capacity to harmonize; both have the capacity to communicate God. Our bodies are made of the same elements as the earth and the sea and the atmosphere; and it was a human body, the human condition, the human experience that the Son of God assumed in the Incarnation. In that harmony of the human with the natural world, he calmed the seas and healed the sick and raised the dead. What God created, all of what God created, is sacred since it comes from God’s hand. I may not perceive or understand that harmonic potential but I trust it is possible as I trust that sanctity is possible for each of us.
Monks and nuns, religious-especially women religious-are re-connecting with creation, not as a fad but as part of our Catholic tradition. Think of it: the Church asks us to bury or burn holy objects like old missals or vestments or the palms from Palm Sunday because the fire and earth are sacred gifts from God. The secrarium in the sacristy, where the chalices and patens are purified lead directly into the earth, not the sewer system. Why? because the earth, as created by God, is sacred. This is the driving force behind what we do with our land.
Most of our monasteries implement sustainable practices, evident in different ways. New Melleray has an organic kitchen gardem and the workshop for the Abbey’s coffin industry employs geothermal heating. Our nuns at Wrentham generate their electricity with windmills. The list could continue and will be the subject of a future post.
You might be interested to check out an article and a video on Mepkin Abbey which has switched over to a more natural industry: growing Orchid Mushrooms. Mepkin was one of our first monasteries in the USA to put land into conservation easement and to take responsibility for the river bank bordering their property. They have spearheaded sustainable gardening, employing native species. You can find more information about their current practices and how they arrived there at: